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May 10, 2021

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Howard Johnson near Vancouver Mall to become housing for homeless

By , Columbian sports staff
Published:
7 Photos
Andy Silver, director of supportive services at the Vancouver Housing Authority, looks over one of the 63 rooms that will be available for homeless residents at the former Howard Johnson hotel during a tour in February.
Andy Silver, director of supportive services at the Vancouver Housing Authority, looks over one of the 63 rooms that will be available for homeless residents at the former Howard Johnson hotel during a tour in February. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The pool was still filled. A holiday ornament was still on the lobby wall. A few struggling flowers and plants were still hanging onto their blooms.

Even the beds were made in the rooms as if hotel guests were about to check in.

This was the scene from a tour in late February of the former Howard Johnson hotel that had closed a few weeks prior and was beginning a transformation into a homeless shelter near Vancouver Mall.

Local and state governments looking to expand homeless shelter capacity have turned to these empty hotel and motel rooms as a way to fill a need.

In some cases, they have even purchased properties from owners who were looking for a way out during the travel industry’s slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The result can be a cost-effective solution to create a new homeless shelter.

“Available motels create an opportunity for affordable housing,” said Roy Johnson, the executive director of the Vancouver Housing Authority. “It’s quicker than starting from scratch and cost-effective.”

For $5.5 million, the VHA was able to close the purchase on the Howard Johnson property in early February. It will turn the former hotel’s 63 rooms into a noncongregate shelter -meaning households will have their own room and bathroom – with a target of opening in June if all goes according to plan.

It will be called Bertha Cain Baugh Place.

“This process started because of the positive experience with choosing a hotel for COVID isolation, and at the same time, other jurisdictions having success with similar models,” said Andy Silver, VHA director of supportive services.

Clark County is far from alone in this new approach.

King County announced plans in early January to buy as many as a dozen hotels to permanently house and provide services to hundreds of homeless people.

In Oregon, Project Turnkey was given $65 million from the Legislature to purchase motels for use as noncongregate shelters for the homeless.

Partnership pays

The process that led the VHA to purchase the Howard Johnson property began in July and was completed in six months.

It worked, Silver explained, because of the partnership between the VHA, Clark County and city of Vancouver.

“Each played roles in doing what each does best to have successful results,” Silver said.

The VHA has a long track record of acquiring and maintaining properties – it already owns three other shelters operated by third-party nonprofits.

As an agency that contracts with nonprofits and social service providers, the county took the lead in finding an operator and maintaining that contract.

Catholic Community Services of Western Washington was selected as the operator on March 3.

The city helped with acquiring the funding through a variety of sources to purchase the location.

And as they say, it’s all about location.

The Howard Johnson is close to transportation as well as employment opportunities.

Search for a site

Richard Gress, the chief executive officer at Realvest, a Vancouver-based real estate investment and development company, assisted the VHA with property search and analysis.

“We reached out to them because they have a big heart and do lots for the community,” Silver said. “They donated their time to this.”

The search included “the Hazel Dell market and further out on Mill Plain and Fourth Plain,” Gress said. “It just seemed that the mall area was most centrally located to transit and had very little impact on the neighborhood.”

Gress said each potential seller has their own story and reason for getting out of motel ownership.

“It’s based on its performance, and where the owner is at personally,” he said. “Another group may just see that it’s time to make a change. There’s always a market out there when hospitality dips.

“There could also be tax benefits for selling too and benefits to the community. Everyone wins on this.”

Win-win arrangement

Motels are ideal for homeless shelters for a variety of reasons.

Aside from being cost-effective, Silver mentioned the controlled access and private space instead of common areas.

“Private space is similar to housing,” he said. “The more personal space that people can have, the more stability they can achieve and the easier it is to get out of shelters and into permanent housing.”

Having four walls can make all the difference, and a former motel room is just that.

“When you talk with those who are homeless, they said this is preferred rather than a congregate shelter,” said Kate Budd, the executive director of the Vancouver nonprofit Council for the Homeless. “Another nice thing is that (motels) could be turned into transitional or permanent housing. They are affordable and flexible in their use.”

Right now with COVID not slowing down, using motels provides “more safe space to be away from others,” Budd said.

What Budd really likes is how motel owners and staff in the area are open to working with Council for the Homeless and other nonprofits, especially during COVID.

“The use of motels, those that are privately owned and open today, has increased a bit through our local nonprofits. They continue to be open to working with us and providing shelter to folks who are houseless and just cannot stay in their current situation,” she said. “Additional shelter capacity is available because local motel owners are willing to work with nonprofits. It’s just greatly appreciated. They are strong partners in our local homeless and housing system.”

The property will be able to provide meals to its residents as well, something the operator will be in charge of setting up. Individual rooms aren’t equipped with kitchens other than a standard hotel microwave.

Where the pool is now might become space for an office or meeting room.

More purchases possible

There could be more motel purchases in the future for homeless shelter conversion.

“We are still interested in finding other motels that are in a state where we could go in and just do a conversion into permanent housing,” Johnson said.

Added Silver: “This isn’t a one-off project, but part of Clark County’s homeless crisis response system that has multiple shelters and different housing programs that focuses on moving people off the streets and into a safe place.

“This will very much be part of that system, working with different local service providers and other shelters the VHA owns as well.”

During the VHA’s board meeting in January, it was pointed out that only two public concerns were filed about making this property into a homeless shelter. They mostly centered on how the shelter might impact nearby businesses.

High demand expected

Once the motel goes through its conversion, getting people into the new shelter won’t be a problem.

In fact, there have already been inquiries about how to get on a waiting list. However, right now, there isn’t one.

Silver said the Council for the Homeless Housing Solutions Center will be the primary access point. Those in need can reach out by calling 360-695-9677 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“Based on the numbers now and current shelter space, we would probably expect for this to run at full capacity,” Silver said.

In addition to providing basic shelter services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Catholic Community Services will also connect and engage residents with services and community supports that address their physical and mental wellness and help them secure stable housing.

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